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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Mar 21, 2022

The death of Özbeg, Khan of the Golden Horde, in 1341 marked the end of an era for the Jochid Khanate. The thirty year reign of Özbeg had been one of relative internal stability; a stability his successors were not to enjoy. Bloody succession struggles, plague and economic woe were now to be the news of the day within the Horde. And it was Özbeg’s sons Tini Beg and Jani Beg Khan who were to face the front of it. Today we take you through the reigns of Özbeg’s sons, the eve of the great anarchy which would rip asunder at the very foundation of the Golden Horde. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


Özbeg Khan, during his long life, seems to have initially desired his eldest son Temür to succeed him. Having violently purged the Jochid lineage upon his own accession in 1313, Özbeg had the luxury to decide on a successor. But Temür’s death around 1330 left Özbeg bereaved, and forced him to make due with his other two sons, Tini Beg and Jani Beg. Born to his wife Taydula Khatun, Tini Beg and Jani Beg were well educated princes. Ibn Battuta noted numerous islamic advisors for both princes, and Jani Beg is specifically described as knowledgeable in Islamic laws. Their names both came from Turkic and Persian words for “spirit,” making them “lords of the spirit.” Tini Beg, as the elder, was preferred by Özbeg to succeed him. During his trip to the Golden Horde, Ibn Battuta describes Özbeg showering Tini Beg in preferences and honours for this purpose. Additionally, Ibn Battuta describes Tini Beg as one of the most handsome of men. There is slight indication that Özbeg and Tini Beg fell out towards the end of his life, when Jani Beg’s name begins to appear alongside Özbeg’s on coinage, suggesting perhaps the second son was being groomed to be heir.


On Özbeg’s death in late 1341, Tini Beg still maneuvered his way onto the throne, likely to the displeasure of Jani Beg. We know little of his reign. There is some suggestion that he was not a Muslim, and had some close links with Franciscans, whom he sent as his envoys to the Pope. One of the earliest pieces of surviving Golden Horde literature dates to his reign, too; a Turkic language poem by the Horde poet Qutb, adapting the Persian language “Khosrow and Shirin” by Nizami. Dedicated to Tini Beg and his wife, it remains a fascinating, if brief, look at the courtly life and social structure of the Horde in the mid-fourteenth century.


We can tell you little else of Tini Beg’s reign with any certainty. Jani Beg never took kindly to Tini Beg’s ascension; we may suspect he felt that Tini Beg had stolen the throne from him. The order of events is conflicting in the sources; potentially their mother, Taydula, preferred Jani Beg and whispered into his ear while Jani Beg’s Islamic advisers may have encouraged him, in reaction to the possibly non-Muslim Tini Beg’s enthronement. In some versions, Jani Beg first kills one of their brothers, Khidr Beg, in very uncertain circumstances. In Tini Beg’s anger, he raises an army to confront his brother Jani Beg, only to be defeated in battle, taken captive and executed. In other versions, Jani Beg only kills Khidr Beg after Tini Beg’s death. The fact of the fratricide of two of his brothers though, is well attested.


So, Jani Beg became Khan in 1342. There can be little doubt of Jani Beg’s islam. We are told he even set out orders for his troops to all don turbans and cloaks. Neither could there be any hesitation among the Rus’ princes about recognizing Jani Beg’s rule; one of Jani Beg’s first orders was sending an army to install a new prince in Pereiaslavl’. The meaning was clear. Jani Beg was going to continue his father’s policy of firm mastery over the Rus’. In quick order the Rus’ princes all travelled to the Horde to recognize Jani Beg’s overlordship; the Grand Prince, now Simeon Ivanovich, too made clear his subservience to Jani Beg Khan. Simeon was a close ally to the Khan, and over his reign made regular trips to the Horde, always returning with gifts, honours and Jani Beg’s favour. A smart move, lest the Khan remove him from his post. In doing so, they continued the slow if steady consolidation of Moscow’s influence regarding the other Rus’ cities. 


    There is also indication that Jani Beg held loftier pretensions. By the start of Jani Beg’s reign, he was essentially the last remaining Chinggisid khan with authority. The Blue Horde khans were his vassals, and the Chagatai Khanate and Ilkhanate were either divided or dissolved. In the Yuan Dynasty, with whom contact was infrequent, the Great Khan Töghön Temür was  a figurehead in comparison to his Chancellors. In reaction, it seems to an extent Jani Beg went about presenting himself not just as successors to Özbeg, but the rightful heir to Chinggis Khan. Not Jani Beg was not just the Jochid Khan, but the supreme Khan. Özbeg himself seems to have used in some instances the title of “khan of khans,” as did Jani Beg. In letters to the Ilkhanid successors in the Caucasus, Jani Beg calls himself the “khan of the three ulusus,” and references to “great Khan,” as a Jochid title continued among his successors for centuries. A subtle shift in ideology, but one indicating a recognition, perhaps, that the Mongol Empire was dead, and now the Jochid Khan was supreme monarch by the grace of Eternal Heaven. 


Jani Beg did not quite share Özbeg’s tolerance to other religions.  While he mellowed later in his reign, initially Jani Beg seemed rather set on reducing privileges enjoyed by Franciscans and the Orthodox Church in Rus’, normally a strong supporter of Mongol rule. “Idol temples,” —that is, Buddhist or shamanist sites— were specified for destruction. And as we will see shortly, Jani Beg reacted with particular ire when Christians within his empire caused trouble. But even this animosity should not be too overstated; there is no recorded attempt by Jani Beg, or other Jochid khans, to try and convert the Rus’ and other Christian populations to Islam. In the 1350s a Rus’ Metropolitan, Alexii, healed the eyes of Jani Beg’s mother, Taydula, for which he earned great reward. On Jani Beg’s death in 1357 the Rus’ Nikonian Chronicle describes the late Jani Beg as a friend to Christians, a  monarch who had given the Rus’ many privileges. We might suspect that Jani Beg took the throne with a zealousness to prove his Islamic bona fides, and cooled in this fervour as the years passed.


Unfortunately for the Italian merchants in the Horde, in 1343 Jani Beg was still very much full of zeal.  That year, the second of Jani Beg’s reign, news came to him of a murder of a Mongol notable in Tana. Tana was the Italian name for Azov, a trading community Özbeg had granted to the Venetians on the mouth of the Don River, nestled on the edge of the Azov Sea east of the Crimea. In September of 1343, an argument between an Italian and a Mongol, Hajji ‘Umar, resulted in the Italians murdering him in the street.  Jani Beg was white hot with rage directed at the Italians. His father Özbeg had generally handled the Italian traders relatively well, playing them off each other and making the Golden Horde a good deal of money. Initially, Jani Beg had reconfirmed the privileges of the Italians. However, Jani Beg took umbrage with the autonomy of the port cities, and felt they had too much control over the Jochid state’s trade. The Italians’ continued dealing in nomadic slaves may also have frustrated the Khan. After the poor relationship between Özbeg  and the Mamluk Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad, Jani Beg basically let the relationship with the Mamluks die. With the disintegration of the Ilkhanate, there was little need for such worthless allies, as far as Jani Beg was concerned. He only sent two embassies to the Mamluks; one alerting them of his enthronement, and one informing them of his conquest of Tabriz. There was no interest or desire to allow the Mamluks their continued access to Qipchap troops, and little patience for Italians selling perfectly good potential warriors to distant Egypt. Not surprisingly, it is about this time that Circassians were gaining prominence as the source of Mamluks in Egypt. 


The murder of the Mongol in Tana was either the final straw, or simply a good pretence to rid himself of the Italians, and perhaps put his own men in charge of the trade. No more could the Italians enrich themselves at the expense of the Horde! In quick order Jani Beg had the westerners in the Black Sea trade cities of  Tana and Solkhat expelled or killed, and an army bearing down on Caffa in 1343. As the chief of the port cities, and the primary Geneose settlement, Caffa was the prize of the campaign. But it would be no easy nut to crack. Caffa’s harbour allowed it to be resupplied by sea no matter how strong the land blockade. Caffa had also learned lessons from sieges suffered during the reign of Toqta Khan thirty years prior. The city walls were stout, its supplies well stocked. Khan Jani Beg found the city withstood his initial assaults over 1343 and 1344. On one occasion a night foray resulted in the Genoese burning down Jani Beg’s siege machines. All Jani Beg could do was cut it off by land, for the Genoese could continue to bring in provisions. 


A further issue had developed too. While the Venetian-Genoese rivalry was normally strong, in the midst of this emergency they had put aside their differences, the Venetians seeking shelter in Caffa and the city-states putting a trade embargo on the Golden Horde. Recall in our previous episodes, how we described the ways in which the economy of the Golden Horde relied on the overland Asian trade. Much of this funneled through the Golden Horde’s Black Sea coastline, and booned with the relative stability of inner-Asian travel. But by the 1340s, this economic system was already reeling with the collapse of the Ilkhanate and Chagatai Khanate, and now with this embargo due to the war with Genoa and Venice, the Horde was effectively cut out of the international trade routes. As early as 1344, a Franciscan observer remarked in a letter that protests were breaking out in the Horde’s city with the unintended economic strangulation. The consequences were felt across Europe, with the doubling of the prices of silk and spices. The Horde was a major grain exporter for much of the Black Sea region, and the war was now resulting in famine in Constantinople, as Jani Beg prevented Italian access to the grain harvests.


In an effort to bring about a resolution, Jani Beg needed a new ploy. He found just the ticket. In an unusual for any Mongol khan, with the exception of Khubilai, Jani Beg decided to build a navy. Harbouring it in the Sea of Azov, Jani Beg was going to attack Caffa land and sea, or at least choke it out. Unfortunately for Jani Beg, such an effort could not go unnoticed as sailors, labourers and materials were called into the region. Once the Genoese learned of it in 1345, a specialty raiding fleet was organized in Genoa, sailed across the Mediterranean and literally dashed Jani Beg’s dreams to pieces; the Golden Horde’s fledgling navy was nipped in the bud, burnt and sunk. 


Jani Beg was denied his swift victory. In 1346 he maintained siege lines but undertook no assaults, and in 1347 concluded separate treaties with Genoa and Venice. Once more the Genoese were able to sail their cargo out of Caffa’s harbour, and the Venetians returned to their colony at Tana. The entire campaign in the end was nought but an expensive failure, returning to status quo ante bellum. The situation remained tense, particularly when Genoese and Venetian rivalry reasserted itself, and not until the late 1350s do things appear to have normalized, and Caffa remained the preeminent trade center of the northern Black Sea coast. But by then, a much more significant crisis now faced the international market, in the form of that intolerable little bugaboo, Yersinia pestis. Or as you may know it by its more colloquial name, the Black Death. 


Wherever its origins were, the Black Death had reached the Golden Horde’s cities by 1346, travelling along the Central Asian trade lines.  It likely began ravaging Jani Beg’s army outside of Caffa in 1346, and it is here that we get one of the most infamous cases of biological warfare ever recorded, wherein Jani Beg ordered his troops to catapult the plague bodies of their fallen men into Caffa, causing it to spread among the defenders. Fleeing Genoese thus took it back to Europe with them. The rest, as they say, is history.


Except maybe it’s not. There’s a number of issues with this popular story. Firstly, it’s described in only a single, by Gabriele de Mussi, who was not an eyewitness. At the time of the siege, de Mussi was in northern Italy, and may have only learned of the information, at-best secondhand, but perhaps only after it passed through multiple informants. The manuscript itself is a matter of question: not only do no other medieval accounts reference Jani Beg launching corpses like this, but no other source mentions de Mussi’s account in particular. In fact, it was unknown until it was discovered in the mid-19th century in what is now Poland! The document itself shows a poor understanding of the chronology, which is suspect for a supposedly educated lawyer like de Mussi. Caffa appears depopulated and abandoned by the end of the siege, though this was far from the case; it also portrays ships coming directly to Genoa from Caffa and spreading the plague thusly. But we know this to be false: the siege ended in 1346, but plague did not come to Genoa until early 1348, and from ships which had come from Sicily. As you probably know, not a lot of plague victims managed two years with it. 


Further issues come from the logic presented in the text. The Mongols’ deep reverence for their own dead, compounded by their conversion to Islam means that launching the bodies of their own fellows into Caffa seems an extraordinary taboo in their culture to break. In fact, there are effectively no historical anecdotes of an army tossing bodies of its own men into a city in order to spread plague; you’ll find very few cultures in history in which soldiers would be willing to disrespect the bodies of their fallen comrades in such a manner. It’s one thing to do it to bodies of the enemy, but the desecration of friends and allies is another matter entirely. The Mongols had a very well established reaction to disease outbreaks; leaving a site entirely, rather than stopping to continually handle the plague bodies. This makes a prolonged proximity to plague victims in order to load them into trebuchets even more unlikely. There have also been arguments that this would be a very ineffective means to actually spread plague!  We can even comment on the fact that, had Caffa been so decimated, why did the Mongols not simply overrun it? 


Suffice to say, very few modern scholars accept de Mussi’s version of events, if the manuscript is even authentic. At best, we might wonder if the Mongols had thrown bodies of prisoners, or even animals, into the city at some point during the siege, which through a game of telephone turned into lobbing thousands of Mongol cadavers into Caffa, as de Mussi suggests. An accidental conflation of timelines and events in the midst of monumental horror of the Black Death is an understandable mistake to make. 


The more likely explanation is that the citizens of Caffa picked up the plague after the siege ended. Either looting the abandoned Mongol siege camp, or when the blockade was lifted and trade restarted with the Golden Horde. With the plague already running rampant in the Horde’s cities, it was only a matter of time before it entered Caffa through  normal means. The port of Caffa began sending ships out for trade again in spring 1347; by the late summer, the plague was in Constantinople, and by early 1348 in Genoa.  Caffa may very well have been the launching point for the plague into the Mediterranean, but the launching point for plague into Caffa was probably not a Mongol siege weapon.


    We have very little information on the effect the Black Death had on the Golden Horde. It seems to have had, just as it did everywhere, a devastating impact on urban centres. As we already established, there were a number of great cities in the steppes which had grown rich on the trans-continental trade. They had already been hurting in previous years with the fall of the other khanates and the Black Sea embargo; now the plague seemed a mortal blow.  The only references we have are vague mentions of thousands upon thousands of losses in these cities. The Rus’ Nikonian Chronicle states that so many died in the Horde’s cities, that there was noone left to bury them. 


For the nomadic population, plague seems to have had a lesser impact. Steppe nomads essentially had a cultural system of quarantine for sick persons; gers would be marked off, and none allowed to enter which a sick person was inside. Those who had been in the presence of a person who died in a ger were forbidden from the khan’s presence entirely. Areas where infected animals or persons were seen were strictly avoided. Such systems remain in place even in modern Mongolia, where Yersinis pestis occurs normally in some animal populations. There, the normally sparse population allows the disease to be avoided like the plague. And it seems it proved beneficial for the Mongols; while Jani Beg had around a dozen children alive by the time of his death, at the same time in the Rus’ principalities numerous princes, notables and even the Grand Prince, Simeon, succumbed to the plague. 


    Yet most assuredly, the 1340s and 50s marked a downward path for the Horde. While occupied with the Crimean venture, Jani Beg’s western bordering was further slipping from his grasp. In 1345 a Mongol army was defeated by the Hungarian King, Louis the Great. Lithuania continued its expansion into Galicia-Volhynia in competition with the Polish King Casimir III. Jani Beg was frustrated by them, and his mood proved fickle. Initially he granted consent for Casimir’s campaigning in Galicia against the Lithaunains, but then in the early 1350s Mongol troops raided as far as Lublin.  In the end, Jani Beg ceded control of Galicia to Poland, and Volhynia to the Lithuanians, in exchange for the continuation of tribute for rights to both lands. While raids by Tatar troops would follow irregularly, Jani Beg’s reign marks the surrendering of the western frontier of the Golden Horde.


    Sinking the resources and men of his empire into Crimea, meant Jani Beg had been unable to take advantage of the disintegration of the Ilkhanate. Though we might wonder if this was in part a reluctance to press that frontier, given the troubles his father had faced attempting to do so. It was not until the end of the 1350s that Jani Beg finally threw his weight against the Ilkhanate’s successors. For years, individuals had fled the Chobanid state to the Golden Horde, bringing news of the poor rulership of Malik Ashraf. For a bit more context, check out episode 58 of this podcast for these post-Ilkhanid states. But in short, the Chobanids were a non-Chinggisid dynasty based in what is now Azerbaijan. Their final ruler was Malik Ashraf, a cruel and violent man who alienated essentially everyone he could. Jani Beg must have felt that the greatly weakened Malik Ashraf would be a pushover. His intentions were clear in the letter he sent to Malik Ashraf in Tabriz:


    “I am coming to take possession of the ulus of Hülagü. You are the son of Choban whose name was in the yarligh  of the four uluses. Today three uluses are under my command and I also wish to appoint you emir of the ulus; get up and come to meet me.” At best, as a non-Chinggisid, Malik Ashraf could rule as a governor on behalf of a khan. Malik Ashraf asserted in his response that this is what he was doing, ruling on behalf of Hülagü’s line. The fact that Malik Ashraf by that point had no Ilkhanid puppet khan was glossed over. Additionally, Malik Ashraf sought to ease worries among his men by stating that as the ruler of the lands of Berke, Jani Beg had no right to the lands of Hülegü. Such an argument did little good as Jani Beg’s host entered the Caucasus in 1357. After a single battle the Chobanid army disintegrated, and the fleeing Malik Ashraf was caught and executed. After almost a century of on and off warfare, Tabriz finally came under Jochid rule. Jani Beg was victorious as none of his ancestors had been. After years of reverses, difficulties and other trials, Jani Beg finally had his great victory. He appointed his son Berdi Beg as governor of the region, and returned triumphant to the Golden Horde… only to die two months later. The blame is usually attributed to Berdi Beg, who in various sources was convinced into the action by poison-tongued emirs. In one account, Berdi Beg strangles his father himself.  Berdi Beg quickly followed this up with murdering many of his brothers, including one who was only eight months old. He is alleged to have killed this one with his own hands. This, as we will see next week, was very far from being the end of the killing. 


    So ended the reign of Jani Beg Khan, and with it, the golden age of the Horde. Jani Beg appears as an almost pale imitation of Öz Beg, ambitious enough for the throne, but not the man to steer the ship in a time of crisis. He wasted men and resources on his effort to expel the Italians, and achieved nothing for the outburst, preventing him from sooner seizing opportunity in the Caucasus. The Black Death and unraveling of the overland trade was of course outside of his power, but Jani Beg’s clumsy hand did nothing to assuage the situation. The fact that he did not face a real threat to his power until 1357 though, speaks to the strength of the Jochid political system that it could essentially coast through these years without major disaster. Such a thing could not be said of Berdi Beg’s reign, or those who were soon to follow him, as the Golden Horde entered its period of bulqhaq: anarchy. Our next episodes will detail the steady collapse of the Golden Horde, so be sure to subscribe to the Kings and Generals Podcast to follow. If you enjoyed this and would like to help us continue bringing you great content, consider supporting us on patreon at This episode was researched and written by our series historian, Jack Wilson. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.